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Studies show that the more stressed you are the less likely you are to fight back against a visiting flu virus, and, once infected, the course of the disease is likely to be longer and more severe.

An image of a healthy family having fun

In my 25+ years of family practice, it was remarkable how certain individuals seemed to never get sick, while others never missed a flu virus, or should I say the virus never missed them. Well, a recent study confirms that this is not just a fluke and that there are reasons for this.

Dr. Lorne Becker, an assistant professor of family practice at the University of Toronto, organized questionnaires that asked patients about two areas of their family life. First, family cohesion, or support an individual felt from family members, then adaptability, or flexibility. In a scientific way, he was really asking for a measure of happiness. The results indicated that rigid, inflexible families, who were fragmented and non-supportive of each other had fifty per cent more flu infections than those who had balanced, happy family lives. Mind you, even the most convivial of households were not immune, and still had a 22% rate of infection in flu season, but this is significantly better than the 33% rate for their more miserable neighbors.

None of this would have been any surprise to the Late Dr. Hans Selye, Canada's great pioneer in stress research. A half a century ago, Dr. Selye noted that when laboratory animals were stressed by controlled shocks or punishments, their lymph glands shriveled up, and the rest of their immune systems went into steep decline. This means that a stressed person is less likely to be able to fight back against a visiting flu virus, and, once infected, the course of the disease is likely to be longer and more severe.

Stress can also affect your health in a number of other ways and inhibit your ability to cope. Under stressful condition your response may be eating high-fat, high-calorie comfort foods, smoking, drinking too much, not sleeping, and not exercising. The combination of changes in your body from the way you respond to stress, combined with other behavioral and emotional responses may lead to chronic health problems. These include:

  • Obesity. In many people, stress can lead to overeating. But that's not all. High levels of stress may increase the risk for visceral fat. This type of fat develops around waist and the organs in the abdomen, causing metabolic changes that can lead to diabetes and heart disease.
  • Cardiovascular disease. Stress does not directly cause heart disease. However, stress can put a strain on the heart and blood vessels, thereby contributing to heart disease.
  • Diabetes. Stress can make it hard to follow your diabetes treatment plan, which can lead to poor health. Stress also directly increases glucose levels, especially in people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Anxiety and depression. It's no surprise that ongoing stress can wear you down mentally, and if severe, lead to anxiety and depression.
  • Asthma. Stress does not cause asthma, but it can trigger asthma attacks and worsen symptoms.
  • Skin conditions. Stress can trigger or aggravate skin symptoms in people with psoriasis and eczema. Stress management may help control these conditions.
  • Stomach problems. No, stress does not cause ulcers. But it can worsen symptoms of ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Acne. One large study confirmed what many teenagers already know: high levels of stress makes acne worse in teens.

Here's an action tip:

Stress doesn't cause infections, for that you still need a bacteria or a virus. But stress does interfere with your defenses to any disease. So workaholics beware, if you don't invest enough time and energy in building strong support at home, you may be headed for an avoidable illness. 

It’s also impossible to completely avoid stressful situations. But you can learn t manage the stress you do encounter:

  • Get enough sleep and eat a healthy diet. Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night so you have the energy to cope with stressful situations. Fill up and fuel your body with healthy choices rather than getting bogged down by high-fat comfort foods.
  • Nurture close relationships. Often, we don't appreciate how important friends and family can be for good health.
  • Learn to let go. Remember, the sky won't fall if you wait another day to do laundry, clean the bathrooms, or write that thank-you note.
  • Try new ways to relax. Some studies have found that yoga, meditation, and relaxation exercises may help reduce stress in people. Yoga will also help build strength and flexibility.
  • Get help if you need it. If you can't get seem to get relief from under stress and nothing seems to help, talk with your family physician or a counselor.

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